Stress Management Needed? Look for the Triggers

With Covid stretching all of us thin, families are experiencing more emotional upheavals than ever—kids and parents, alike. The #1 step to managing anger and stress is to give yourself and your kids a break and keep it present—stop catastrophizing fears into the future—easier said than done. Covid adds enormous stress to an already stressful life. Don’t try to make life the same as before. You will only come out feeling like a failure—more stress.

When you see anger and physical aggression in your kids, it’s easy to panic and think there’s something wrong. You can also look at it differently and think, it’s wonderful that my kids feel safe to express their anger in our home. Did you? If not, then your child’s anger triggers a danger signal in your brain, which likely leads you into fight, flight or freeze mode. Helpful responses rarely follow.

Author, Rachel Simmons says we tend toward either a positive or negative “stress mindset”. With a positive mindset, you experience the fullness of your emotions and feel the stress, but you know you will get through it, you are not alone—there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can get there. A negative mindset takes you down. It tells you that once again you can’t do this, why bother, wouldn’t it just be easier to give up and give in. You feel overwhelmed, alone, and hopeless.

You can change your mindset. Instead of being a victim to your child’s anger and your own out of control emotions, look for the triggers. Is there a pattern to your child’s explosions (yours as well)? Is it when he can’t get something he wants? When a sibling is involved? When she has to understand directions on a screen from her teacher? When he has to transition to something new? For you, is it when you feel most overwhelmed? When you think your kids don’t listen to you? At the end of the day?

When you can begin to see a pattern, you can put focus there and not get lost in the enormity of the “anger problem”. When you see the triggers, you can be proactive (sometimes anyway), and set your expectations accordingly and hopefully a bit more realistically.

When you tell him to stop his video game, or he can’t have something he wants, or he has to get ready for bed, and you’ve seen this pattern, prepare yourself by expecting that this will be hard for him—and therefore you. Approach the situation with consideration for his struggle rather than expect him to stop getting upset about such a silly thing and just do it.

Another child having something your child wants might trigger her fear that she never gets what she wants—a typical fear for a young child—so she lashes out. But whether she feels okay about her anger or fears she will get yelled at or punished determines her self-image. If you fear she is turning into a selfish brat, you will get angry and try to control her reaction with threats and “consequences”. This can set off a negative feedback loop—her initial upset >> your criticism >> her fear she is bad >> her exaggerated upset >> taking something away from her >> her rage and negative self-image—a self-fulfilling prophesy.

With a positive stress mindset, you will feel frustrated and annoyed with the childish behaviors, yet you will understand that this is normal development and trust that it will pass as your child matures. A negative stress mindset turns that frustration into rage and mental exhaustion due to fear that your child will always be like this, and it will be your fault for not being a good enough parent.

To change your stress mindset:

  1. Keep a log to find a pattern of triggers that sets your child off.
  2. Anticipate situations that can be a trigger. Give your child warnings and offer choices to make the situation as easy as possible.
  3. Expect a meltdown knowing that this type of situation is very hard for your child. Expecting it can help you stay calmer.
  4. Notice your reaction—is it fight, flight or freeze? Acknowledge your fear.
  5. Think, “Of course”. Of course she doesn’t want to stop her game, of course he doesn’t want to leave the house, of course her sister pushes her button, of course he is jealous of what his friend has.
  6. Focus on the struggle that your child is having rather than the problem your child is being.
  7. Normalize your child’s emotions by offering comfort and validation of his feelings.
  8. Remember how undeveloped your child’s brain is and be realistic about her emotional capabilities.
  9. Know that this too will pass.

When you focus on your child’s struggle, rather than take his behavior personally, you are less likely to label him with mean, violent, rude, angry, disrespectful. Any negative behavior stems from stress, just like yours. It may be over something you think is trite but it’s not to him. When you look to the stress, the emotional upset, the assumptions you make about your child will change from he’s being so violent to he’s really hurting. You don’t have to know why, just that he’s hurting. When you get that, your emotions switch from rage to sadness or compassion. Your response changes entirely. He’s having a problem, not being a problem. This is a huge mindset shift.